New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired a rare dual portrait of Dutch Old Master Rachel Ruysch, a prolific painter best known for her still lifes of flower arrangements. Ruysch crafted her signature flora onto the canvas, and then portrait-painter Michiel van Musscher depicted the artist at work.
It’s The Met’s first painting by Ruysch (a work acquired in 1871 was later discovered to be a copy) and the museum’s first dual portrait. The work was formerly known to only a few scholars and research into the painting is just now beginning.
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“I’m really excited to delve into some of the mysteries about it,” The Met’s Associate Curator of European Paintings Adam Eaker told Hyperallergic. “It shows us, I think, how innovative Ruysch was in crafting her public image early in her career: She’s been continuously famous since her own lifetime.”
Despite their floral subject matter, Ruysch’s paintings are moody and dark, evoking the somber palette of her contemporaries in the Dutch Golden Age. The works of those 17th-century artists constitute some of the world’s most famous paintings — an exhaustive Vermeer exhibition in Amsterdam is sold out and resale tickets are selling for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. But as in many aspects of the art world, the field was heavily male-dominated.
“Fortunately, she wasn’t forgotten or overlooked in the way that so many artists — particularly women artists — in the 17th century were,” Eaker said.
Ruysch was born to famous anatomist and botanist Frederik Ruysch — who went on to sell his collection of work to Russia’s Peter the Great — and her paintings display a studied adherence to scientific accuracy and detail. The artist managed to craft a successful six-decade-long career and achieve widespread acclaim, becoming the first woman member of the artists society Confrerie Pictura and serving as a court painter to a German duke.
Eaker explained that the newly acquired portrait shows Ruysch “in the height of her powers,” after she had developed her own painting style and her own manner of arranging flowers.
Ruysch created one other known dual-portrait, over a decade later with her husband, fellow painter Juriaen Pool II. While this style of portrait is exceedingly rare, Eaker explained that paintings created by two artists were actually quite fashionable in the 17th century.
“It was a way for connoisseurs to exercise their skills and show off in front of their guests that they could identify these different hands — this kind of pictorial game,” said the curator.
Scholars are not entirely sure of the relationship between Michiel van Musscher and Ruysch, but van Musscher owned one of Ruysch’s paintings and the two artists were connected years later when Peter the Great visited Amsterdam. “They operated in overlapping circles,” said Eaker. “He definitely admired her work, but there’s still a lot to be discovered.” (Eaker also noted that the pair crafted this painting a year before Ruysch got married.)
The Met’s new acquisition is already helping scholars unlock secrets about Ruysch. Eaker pointed to the bottom of the canvas, where a drawing can be seen underneath the stack of books. Scholars have long debated the role of drawings in Ruysch’s practice and there are no existent sketches attributed to her, but this blue sheet of paper could help art historians determine what the painter’s drawings actually looked like.
In the painting’s foreground, lines scrawled in the open book describe van Musscher’s and Ruysch’s collaboration. “Behold how van Musscher made her brush shine when he painted her from life,” Eaker translated. The page is signed “De Vree,” a detail that points to a mysterious third collaborator.
In the bottom right, a butterfly hangs onto a light pink flower. Eaker said that late-17th-century artists attached real butterfly wings to their paintings, and that scientific examination found scales from the disintegrated creature on the canvas. “She really is thinking about how to combine art and science,” said Eaker.
“I couldn’t really believe my eyes,” Eaker said of the moment when he first saw the painting. He was at a diner on Madison Avenue and the dealer who sold the work pulled up an image on his laptop. “It’s truly a dream acquisition.”